An artisanal plea from a fed-up foodie

When you find me behind bars, locked up for a fit of lexical rage, please know that it was granola that pushed me over the edge. Not just any granola: “artisan granola.”

Presumably its makers meant artisanal granola, made in limited quantities using traditional methods, rather than crunchy-buttery-nutty snacks for a hungry craftsperson. Whatever. It’s granola! It started out in the 19th century as health food for sick people. There is no long tradition of baked rolled oats that’s been passed down through generations. And even if there were, Grandma wouldn’t be dropping her breakfast mix into a factory-sealed plastic bag stamped with nutritional information.

“Artisanal” once described something meaningful, honoring the labor of people who make things very skillfully, with their hands. I think it came into vogue a few years ago, with the charcuterie and cheese businesses, and it makes sense in those contexts. Techniques of preserving meat and dairy without refrigeration and without killing ourselves really have been passed down through countless centuries.

Then along came artisanal pasta. OK, I can handle that. If you’ve ever had pasta made by hand, with fresh eggs, it’s not just artisanal, it’s aphrodisiacal. Of course, soon pasta that was just mixed and dried in small factories acquired the label.

By now, it’s just an emptied-out, hollow marketing term, like “fresh.” And things have gotten absurd. Artisanal popcorn? (It happens to be sublime popcorn, but its long, well-crafted heritage is not why.) Artisan Jell-o. Artisan-style peanut butter. And — drum roll, please — ArtisanTM dog food.

Make it stop!

We in the food movement have a problem, starting with “food movement.” Alone, it sounds … intestinal. But all the modifying adjectives are either too vague or already co-opted. First of all, what’s this “movement” about: Slow Food? SOLE food? Real food — brought to you by Hellman’s? Good food? Clean and fair food? All of the above?

And who is this “we,” really? Please, don’t say “foodies.” First of all, it sounds like baby talk: Does my liddle foodie-woodie want some artisanal-wizzanal Twinkie-winkies? Second, most of America loves to hate people who won’t shut up about their elite, snobby food, so much so that a new term has been coined, reports Chow: foochebags.

“Locavore” is good, but too narrow. I prefer “Ethicurean,” but four years after I and some friends came up with it, it has yet to catch on. Nine times out of 10, when you say it, people hear “epicurean,” which is just a fancy Greek word for foodie. Meanwhile, “conscientious eater” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

So, for lack of a better term, this loose, wide-ranging coalition usually gets called the sustainable food movement. But “sustainable” is another word like “artisanal” — everybody’s using it; few have a clue what it should mean. (I once spent way too many words talking about that here.) Just as with artisanal, there’s money to be made in redefining and qualifying it. Walmart is working on a Sustainable Product Index. Meanwhile, a diverse group of farmers, industry, and activists are trying to codify some standards for “sustainable agriculture,” but advocates of genetically engineered crops have just walked out because they weren’t getting no respect.

That’s fine. Patented seeds are to “sustainable” what factory-manufactured granola is to “artisanal.”

This movement desperately needs some fresh new language. Last week, Grist’s David Roberts asked readers “What should we call people who care about climate change and clean energy?” The result — “climate hawks” — is pure framing genius.

Alas, “food hawks” won’t fly. So, I’m asking all you smart readers: What should we call people who care about making the food system healthier (for eaters, farmers, farm animals, and the environment), fairer (for workers), and sustainable (as in, less dependent on limited resources)?

Help me out here, people. In the meantime, I’m going to mix myself an artisanal cocktail.

Cross-posted from Grist, where I am now the food editor.

18 Responsesto “An artisanal plea from a fed-up foodie”

  1. Vicky says:

    Foochebag — this entire post was well worth reading if only for that one word alone. Ha! You will find me stealing that little gem for Facebook.

    I love the term Ethicurean. I just think it needs a little more exposure out there in the big, bad world of trendy food terms. It appears that the popularization of a term seems to be directly proportional to a company’s ability to make a buck off of it, so you’ll need to create some sort of nifty sticker that can go on the foods you love, “Ethicurean Approved”.

    Grandma Lucy’s may not be the pinnacle of “artisan” dog food, at least not as long as Stella and Chewy’s is cranking out their doggity goodness, but put it up against most of the big box store shelf stuff and it certainly holds its own.

    Peace out.

  2. Emily says:

    I’ve always called myself a “deliberate eater.”

  3. Tamara says:

    Thank you.

  4. Alisa says:

    I will be trying to find ways to include foochebag into my daily conversations though. Thank you for increasing my vocabulary. On another note, I do enjoy the term foodie. It’s just plain fun to say.

  5. Hector says:

    I would go with “conscious consumer.”

  6. I call myself a foodshed activist, my friends call me self-righteous – they aren’t hip enough to call me a foochebag.
    I hate the term foodie – it makes me seem cute & tender – a critter that should be snatched out of the food chain by a bigger, better predator.
    I like Ethicurean, but it isn’t catching on. Maybe Food Climber. Get on up that food chain quickly and watch the rest of our detractors eat those salmonella (reasonably priced) eggs from Hillendale farms and gmo corn chips that may eventually cause their offspring to have Shrek ears and watch their Karma count drop while they eat cheap factory tortured (I mean raised) pork.
    I’m proud of my deep freeze full of organic pasture raised lamb, beef and pork from two ranchers within 25 miles of my home. I like washing the chicken poop off my fresh egg before I eat it with its golden sun-like yolk. I gladly pay a little extra to go to a restaurant that sources its food. I’m a happy little primate, grateful that I can get such amazing food and enjoy from my perch high up the food chain.

  7. CJ says:

    I call myself a “cook” and that’s enough.

  8. Anna says:

    I just tell people I eat like I give a damn.

  9. I’m an economic omnivore. I eat whom I can afford. :) Things I raise are the most affordable (local) and I like to start there.

  10. Bart Nagel says:

    Just don’t call me late for dinner.

  11. Cherie says:

    I identify as a conscious eater…or if I have to go into it I say I eat well sourced food. I hate the “foodie” thing. Ugh. That word will never enter my vocabulary. It sounds stuffy, snobby almost.


  12. Sophie says:

    I don’t mind foodie, really like ethicurian, and got a good laugh out of foochebag. I think any name with wide usage will get stretched and misused beyond recognition over time.

  13. Elaine says:

    I’ve always liked Ethicurean. I agree with you on the annoying language, but nothing you mention bothers me as much as the non-word veggie. Like foodie, it sounds like — and is — baby talk. We’re grown-ups; can’t we handle all the syllables in vegetable?

  14. Heidi says:

    This is the problem with words. They become soundbites that then become marketing tools. And in the hands of advertisers the words become utterly meaningless. Be glad that ethicurean hasn’t caught on. The next thing you know it could be used to sell twinkies :)

  15. Ethicurean is efficient and elegant. Lovely. I do so wish the “slow food” folks had thought of it. “Slow food” as a name is totally dependent upon the idea of fast food for definition.Not good strategy.

  16. Peter Fein says:

    How about “handshake”? As in, shaking the hand of the person who made your food… or a chain of actual-flesh-on-flesh if you’re buying from a reseller (staring with the grower’s and ending with yours). Seems like it’d be much harder for Madison Ave to co-opt, as the word has a plain meaning that’s already understandable.

    Makes a great adjective: shopping at the farmer’s market or your local bike shop becomes “handshake capitalism”, going to the theater becomes “handshake entertainment”, and so on.

    You like? Email me, let’s discuss – I’ve been thinking a lot about the way in which modern marketing practices put the very meaning of words up for sale, and how to combat that.

  17. LaraLooHoo says:

    If we tire of defending the meaning of sustainability, or feel that foodie or Organic has been labeled elitist, blog entries like these encourage us to give up too quickly!

    The issue at hand regarding definitions is not that they have been co-opted and therefore should be abandoned, but that those using them should adhere to the standards for use. We give up the powerful words too easily. I’m with Fred Kirschenmann, as quoted in the Ethicurian article on defining sustainability: “Efforts to define, confine, and standardize sustainability are really contrary to what sustainability is about.” ( Whether we are talking about a specific aspect of the alternative food movement (and each is interconnected – there aren’t different food movements), or about one word to define people who are engaged in being conscious of their personal eating habits or creating change via their kitchens, we are talking about the same thing.

    Call us what you will — ethicurians, epicurians, convivialists, conscious consumers and real food enthusiasts– we are all seeking the authentic elements that makes food personal. The definition of what is real and authentic food matters most in your own context, in your place. (And now, I’ve tipped my locavore hand, too). That there is debate about these topics is the very process of making the definitions have cultural meaning and context. If we turn away from the debate just to debate the creation of another term, it is a loss to the entire cause. Don’t give up on the value of chemical free food (Organic) or a system that is in balance (Sustainable).

    Good and real food for all is not an elitist plot to take over the world and make everyone eat foie gras. Just because the marketplace uses your word, takes over “local” in a way you don’t like, or over uses “sustainable” doesn’t mean we need something new. It just means we need to continue to engage in making meaning of those ideas. Words are just ideas with common definitions that we create, each time we use them.

  18. Kevin says:

    Foochebags. Classic. I know some of those. That one has sticking power.

    I don’t know how you label the food movement either. And whatever concept it is, big business will water it down eventually.